Timothy McManus says he was just looking to offer some legal research in 2012 when he wrote to Donna, a woman serving a 20-year sentence at a state prison in Georgia. McManus, who’d finished two decades in a Texas prison earlier that year, knew the power of hearing his name at mail call. Much of what got him through that time, he says, was his correspondence with more than 70 people through websites including writeaprisoner.com, meet-an-inmate.com, and paperdollspenpals.com.
After a year and a half of corresponding with Donna, the relationship became romantic. “We certainly understand each other’s lives,” he says. “To be honest, since I’ve been out, it’s not impossible, but difficult, to relate to women outside who don’t understand. There’s a connection with Donna.”
Over the past decade, two seemingly disconnected worlds have ballooned in tandem: the U.S. prison system, now numbering 6.8 million adults, and the $3 billion online dating industry. The overlap is a growing constellation of sites with names such as loveaprisoner.com, inmate-connection.com, and inmatepassions.com that promote companionship between those living inside and those living outside prison walls. More recently, however, tens of thousands of inmates have seen their access to such sites restricted or banned altogether, as states and the federal government spar over criminal justice reform.
Officials in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania have restricted the access inmates have to pen-pal websites. Florida banned them altogether. “Prisoners are out of sight, out of mind,” says Tom Churchill, a public health researcher at the University of Alberta. The sites, he says, are “a small step toward positive change. And we need change.”
Ylvania have restricted the access inmates have to pen-pal websites. Florida banned them altogether. “Prisoners are out of sight, out of mind,” says Tom Churchill, a public health researcher at the University of Alberta. The sites, he says, are “a small step toward positive change. And we need change.”
Compared with conventional dating sites, these are small-time, mostly subsistence businesses. They tend to build user bases slowly, relying mostly on word-of-mouth, and the interfaces remain simple and web-based, with no mobile apps or Tinder-style swiping. Inmates submit their profiles via snail mail, and the site operators type up or scan them to post online. In some cases inmates pay nominal fees to list themselves; for those on the outside, corresponding with them is usually free.
Because of the low- to no-fee model—the fees cover costs such as servers and web hosting—operators say the websites don’t generate much money. Lee Young, the 72-year-old founder of gayprisoners.net, says his site is a “labor of love” and that he largely volunteers his time adding a handful of profiles each week, charging inmates $10 to list themselves or $25 to get special pages that can accommodate more photos and designs. “I pitch this as a pen-pal site, as a way to connect,” says Young. “Just about every letter I get from an inmate has the word ‘lonely’ in it.”
For better and worse, users say, the sites help strip away the mindless chitchat, bad movies, and restaurant-choosing anxiety that often come with early courtship. Premarital abstinence may be mandatory, and conflicts often have to be resolved in writing, or through plated glass. “You can’t have makeup sex when you’re dating an inmate,” says Robert Hake, 46, a machinist. “We have to sit and talk everything through.”
Hake sent his first letter through writeaprisoner.com in 2014. As a single father who’d just moved to Cleveland, he’d had little luck with more mainstream dating apps and liked the idea of a little distance while he and his son adjusted to their new home. In January 2016 he began a correspondence with an incarcerated woman in Oregon. They were married at her prison in April; she gets out in October.
“I can’t wait to do normal things with her,” Hake says. “Using a smartphone, going to the store, going out and eating together, like other couples do.” Friends, family, and co-workers have come to accept his new wife, but it’s been a struggle to find a landlord who wouldn’t balk at her criminal history (in the end, they got a house) and to finalize the paperwork that will allow her to leave Oregon while on probation.
getting a smartphone, going to the store, going out and eating together, like other couples do.” Friends, family, and co-workers have come to accept his new wife, but it’s been a struggle to find a landlord who wouldn’t balk at her criminal history (in the end, they got a house) and to finalize the paperwork that will allow her to leave Oregon while on probation.
Beyond helping inmates endure their sentences by letting them know someone on the outside is thinking of them, prison dating sites may be able to help reduce recidivism, says the University of Alberta’s Churchill. He’s surveying 2,500 inmates and pen pals in the U.S., and he says he’s seen enough already to determine “it can have a positive benefit for those inside and out.”
The flip side, critics say, is that dating sites give criminals a chance to prey on the emotions and bank accounts of the naive. In Oklahoma, a convict was ordered to pay $125,000 in restitution to victims of a scam in which he solicited gay men and then tried to extort those who were closeted. David Roberts, a pen pal in Michigan, says his relationship with an inmate he found online in California ultimately resulted in heartbreak, a $14,000 credit card bill, and a defaulted furniture loan that marred his credit rating. “She financially crucified me,” he says.
Most of the inmate sites carry hefty disclaimers, urging users to avoid giving money or sensitive personal details. Churchill says only about 1 in 10 of the pen pals he’s surveyed report feeling taken advantage of by a fellow correspondent, whereas 99 percent of inmates say communication with the outside world has had positive effects. Still, horror stories have given ammo to those who say convicts shouldn’t get perks such as dating sites.
In some states the sites are being threatened by bills or corrections officials arguing that any expense related to inmate romance, including computer access, is too much. The restrictions in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania set limits on how much correspondence prisoners are allowed to send or receive through the sites. Most states, however, have yet to take such a hard line.
The more common problems with prison dating sites will sound more familiar to anyone who’s tried nonprison dating sites, or just dating, period. The rush of new-love adrenaline wore off over time, says Savannah Smith, a former pen pal from San Diego. “You visit a maximum-security yard, and there’s that whole element of danger to it,” she says. “It becomes almost addicting, as awful as it sounds.” Smith regularly wrote to three different men in and around California for much of the past four years, but eventually the jokes about living in a “gated community” grew old, and she stopped visiting.
Aaron Nathan, a single paralegal in Toronto, says he’s written hundreds of letters to female inmates but gets few letters back once he makes clear that his Orthodox Judaism means any partner would have to convert. Still, he says he’s a romantic and likes getting to know women with a wide range of personalities.
McManus says he was eagerly awaiting Donna’s release, scheduled for July 2019, until he learned that due to the rules of her probation, she won’t be allowed to associate with other ex-convicts, including him. The two are still in touch for the time being, and McManus says he’ll continue to offer advice as a friend. “When I got out, it was a total shock. Like The Shawshank Redemption,” he says. “I didn’t know how to use a cell phone, a laptop, a DVD player, or how to open up a CD case. I froze at the grocery store because there were so many choices, and I hadn’t eaten a banana in 20 years.”
The law’s restrictions on his relationship with Donna will also help fuel McManus’s advocacy for fellow ex-cons, who are often hamstrung by policies that don’t account enough for their particular circumstances. “We’ll take it one day at a time,” he says. “That’s all you can do.”